Grace Institute: Systematic Theology: Anthropology: The Human Constitution

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership


Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership

Winter 2006


The Praise of God's Greatness (Psalm 8)

Three thousand years ago, a young shepherd named David was probably tending his sheep one dark night in Judea, and while staring at the stars, wrote Psalm 8 [1].

(Psalms 8:1 NIV) "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens."

David sees God's glory in the heavens. But he also has that same sense of insignificance that modern astronomy provides when looking into the stars.

(Psalms 8:3-4 NIV) "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"

After comparing one man to the population of the earth, and then taking us into space to compare that earth to the sun, the solar system, and the stars, John Wesley then takes the entire finite universe and compares it to God himself:

What is the space of the whole creation, what is all finite space that is, or can be conceived, in comparison to the infinite? What is it but a point, a cipher, compared to that which is filled by him that is All in all? Think of this, and then ask, "What is man?" [2]

The prophet Isaiah has a similar thought as he contemplates who God is:

(Isaiah 40:22 NIV) "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in."

The Praise of Humanity's Greatness

In light of the greatness of God and the vastness of His creation, David asks the question, "why are you mindful, why do you care about man?" That is the amazing part of the message of scripture. God is mindful. God does care about man. Beyond that, in comparison to all the rest of creation, man is in a uniquely high position. According to verse 5, Man is but a little lower than God himself! [3]

Ron Allen has translated this text as:

But you have caused him to lack but little of God; and with glorious honor, you have crowned him. [4]

In the cosmic scope of things, there is God, and then there is Man, and then the rest of creation. Humans are therefore, in the biblical worldview, to be considered highly esteemed. They are above the rest of creation, including animals and angels. To be human is to lack but little of God!

The Human Constitution

While the bible teaches clearly an exalted view of humanity, what makes us human? What makes up the human constitution? There are two main categories of belief regarding the make-up of humanity: monism and dualism.


Monism teaches that body, soul and spirit are all the same. What we regard as the inner self, consciousness, personality, soul or spirit are integrated into the human body and can not be separated. Therefore, when the body dies, all that makes us human dies with us.

Natural Monism

Materialists (i.e. those who do not believe in a spiritual realm) are natural monists. If there is no spiritual side to humans, then when we die, we cease to exist. Consciousness, rationality, emotion and spiritual understandings are all part of the chemistry of the body and can therefore not exist without the body.

Theistic Monism

Some Christians also hold to a monistic view of humanity. They would hold that scripture teaches that the body and the soul are closely linked together and can not exist apart from each other. Therefore, when one dies, the soul “sleeps” until the resurrection when all are brought back with new bodies (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15).

Those holding to this belief point specifically to the Old Testament, where those who have died are said to have no consciousness (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). Scripture clearly teaches that our only hope is in the resurrection, and that the idea of the spirit going to heaven after we die is a result of Greek philosophy becoming infused into Christian beliefs.


While, indeed, our hope lies in the resurrection, scripture does also teach that when our bodies die, there is a part of us that continues on until the resurrection. Jesus, while dying on the cross, tells the repentant thief, “truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise. [5]” Paul, while in prison, tells the Philippians that, while living would allow him to see them again, if he dies, that would “be with Christ. [6]” Jesus, in Matthew 10:28, tells us to not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Finally, Paul affirms to us that when we die, indeed we will see the Lord:

"Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. " (2 Corinthians 5:6-8, NASB95)


While the bible shows that humans have both a corporeal and non-corporeal component, there is debate as to what makes up the non-corporeal side. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12, the terms body, soul and spirit are used together to describe the whole of a human. Therefore, humans consist of a trichotomy of body, soul and spirit. The body consists of all the physical elements of our being. The soul contains our reason, emotion, will and personality. The Spirit contains that part which can be in relationship with God.


While some passages mention body, soul and spirit, others only mention the body and the soul (Matthew 6:25, 10:28), while other mention only the body and spirit (Ecclesiastes 12:7, 1 Corinthians 5:3, 5). Several passages state that dying is the passing of either the soul or the spirit. These two terms seem to be synonyms for the immaterial part of humans.

However, given that the soul/spirit lives on after the death of the body, this indicates a difference between the material and immaterial parts. The human constitution, therefore, consists of a dichotomy of the material (body) and immaterial (Soul, Spirit).

Gnostic Dualism

In the second century, there arose a Greek religion known as Gnosticism. The teachings of Gnosticism are found in the so-called “Gnostic gospels” and recently have found new popularity in the fictional book The Da Vinci Code.

This religion extended early Platonic ideas of spirituality which believed that the physical world was evil, while the spiritual world was good. The Gnostics were dualists, with humanity being divided between body and soul, the unity between these two was not the preferred state. In this viewpoint, the physical is something to be overcome or ignored. The ultimate hope then was found in transcending the physical body and living as pure spirit.

The real danger of Gnosticism is not found in threats from the Da Vinci Code , but in way Gnostic dualism is held by many within the church today. Many ignorant believers have been taught and believe that we are saved so that we can “go to heaven.” Their hope is not in the resurrection of our physical bodies which will dwell with God in a physical new earth, but in having our physical bodies die and our spirits go to heaven.

Such a belief leads to an improper view of spirituality and an unbalanced view of what it means to be human. Furthermore, Gnostic dualism leads to one of two extremes. If the body doesn't matter, it either leads to unhealthy hedonism where we ignore the body and just indulge our physical urges, or it leads to asceticism where we deny the body any pleasures. Either result creates a negative impression of the physical pleasures which God has given to humanity to enjoy (e.g. sex, food, etc.).

The Unity of Body and Soul

While the scripture teaches that the immaterial can exist without the material, this is not the normal or preferred state. The soul without the body is not a whole person. While after death we may exist with the Lord, our hope lies not in this state, but in the future resurrection of our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:4, Romans 8:23).

“The separation made at death between the material and immaterial is an unnatural separation in which people will long to be united with their body because the body is an essential part of humanity [7].

Therefore, humans should not be regarded as being unified between body and soul and not as component parts. The immaterial and material are closely united and we can not deal with the physical without considering the spiritual (or vise versa). Furthermore, humans are complex beings that can not be easily understood by a simple formula.

All aspects of humanity are important and part of our “image of God.” We should not ignore or look down on any aspect of humanity, physical or spiritual. Furthermore, spiritual growth does not mean that one aspect of humanity suppresses another aspect (e.g. spiritual over the physical). Finally, humans can exist without their body, although this is a temporary state until the resurrection. Our real hope lies in becoming fully human again and receiving a resurrected body.


  1. Ray C. Stedman. “Man and God.” Folksongs of Faith. ([sermon on-line] Palo Alto CA: Discovery Publishing, 1995, accessed May 17, 2006; available from ; Internet).
  2. John Wesley. "What is Man?" Sermons on Several Occasions. ([sermon on-line] Grand Rapids MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005, access May 17, 2006; available from ; Internet).
  3. It needs to be noted that the King James translation of verse 5 states that man is "a little lower than the angels." The Hebrew word translated "angel" here is the word "Elohim," which means God. The Septuagint first translated this as "angel". According to Dr. Allen,
  4. "The rendering 'angels'... seems to have been a desperate attempt on the part of the translators of the Septuagint to avoid what they determined to be a difficulty with their own culture. Had they translated 'a little lower than God,' would not their pagan neighbors accuse them of worshipping demigods? Where would the great Jewish declaration of monotheism go if they admitted to this high view of man?"
  5. Ron Allen. The Majesty of Man . (Portland OR: Multnomah Press, 1984), 71.
  6. Luke 23:42-43
  7. Philippians 1:23
  8. The Theology Notebook – Humanity and Sin. [book on-line]. (Dallas TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2005, accessed April 24, 2006; available from; Internet), 32.

[Next: Imago Dei]

989 Country Club Rd Eugene, OR 97401 | 541.683.9205 |